A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

Notebooks come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here's help in picking the right one.

Because they have roughly the same hardware, they all end up about the size of a legal pad that's a little less than two inches thick, and they weigh 6 or 7 pounds. That's because cutting inches and ounces costs money.

There are a few happy surprises when it comes to configuration, though. Just about every budget machine these days has a good assortment of ports and a DVD-burning optical drive, although some can't handle the latest double-layer media. Plus, Toshiba's Satellite A305 comes with an FM tuner and the option to have two 250GB hard drives inside.

Don't expect stellar performance or full-day battery life, but this class of system can easily handle daily tasks such as e-mail, Web research and tapping out memos and reports. They start to bog down with computationally intense tasks like video editing or heavy-duty database work.

What's missing from a $450 budget notebook? A lot of the things that we've become accustomed to, such as a high-resolution screen, Bluetooth, a fingerprint scanner and sometimes a webcam. In some cases you can order them as options, but the money adds up quickly -- if you want any of these items, it might be a better deal to get a stripped-down mainstream system instead.

Mainstream

As the name implies, the mainstream notebook market is dominated by the systems that companies buy to outfit the majority of their mobile workers. They're more expensive than budget systems, while being bigger and heavier than thin and light systems. They are all about performance and reliability with solid components.

Rather than changing quickly as new components come out, the designs of these laptops tend to be locked in for a few years, and their accessories can be used by several generations. This makes it easier and less expensive for businesses to deploy and maintain mainstream notebooks, but it also makes them a bit less exciting for consumers.

Mainstream machines are for those who create complex documents, crunch numbers, perform online research and -- above all -- communicate. In other words, a mainstream notebook is a mobile stand-in for a desktop PC. With fast Intel Core 2 Duo processors, at least 2GB of RAM and large hard drives, this class of notebook offers excellent performance, although it can be at the expense of battery life.

Video may not be top shelf, but it's a step up from budget systems, with a 14- or 15-inch screen and a powerful graphics engine that uses either system memory or at least 256MB of its own video memory. Better yet, these machines often have all the ports of a desktop PC, with four or more USB outlets, FireWire and sometimes HDMI for plugging into a big-screen TV.

Mainstream notebooks also offer a great selection of upgrades, add-ons and options, from high-performance 7,200-rpm hard drives or integrated Turbo memory to SSD storage or a high-resolution display. Watch out, though -- the costs add up quickly.

The down side is that all these goodies add up to a bulky machine that weighs 6 or more pounds. Before you buy, imagine sprinting between airport gates with one of these mobile monsters inside your shoulder bag.

Entertainment

The sooner we face up to the fact that we're all media junkies, the sooner we can satisfy our needs with an entertainment notebook. As good at turning an office or small apartment into a media lounge as they are for taking TV on the road, entertainment systems contain the equivalent of a high-powered media machine. But be warned: They can weigh more than 10 pounds.

Look for a premium Intel processor, like the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, along with 4GB of system memory. A large hard drive is de rigueur because an entertainment notebook is not only for watching TV shows but recording them with a built-in digital video recorder. Since you don't want the hard drive to fill up with Sponge Bob reruns, most have double-layer or Blu-ray optical drives for putting your favorites onto discs.

The center of attention is the built-in TV tuner. At the moment, however, no mobile entertainment system on the market has two tuners for watching one show while recording another. I suspect it's just a matter of time.

Video is key, with a high-definition display of at least 17 inches; in fact, 18.4-inch panels are becoming the sweet spot. Look for a high-end graphics engine with between 512MB and 1GB of its own video memory.

Sound is just as important, with high-end audio chips and elaborate control panels. Some models, such as the Acer Aspire 8920, include up to five integrated stereo speakers, a bass booster and Dolby Home Theater sound effects.

These systems have room for an incredible array of connection possibilities, with four or five USB ports, HDMI (for connecting to an even bigger screen), eSATA (for an external hard drive) and often SPDIF (to drive digital speakers).

At 10 pounds of gear, this class is more appropriate for trips from the den to the kitchen rather than from Cincinnati to Seattle. If you do need to hit the road, figure on buying the custom bag that the manufacturer sells for this system, or -- better yet -- get a wheelie bag.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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